The state is going to start conducting its own tests on pesticides, with help from the Department of Agriculture.
The state is going to start conducting its own tests on pesticides, with help from the Department of Agriculture. Cannabis/Shutterstock

The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, which has spent the better part of the last two years assuring anyone concerned with pesticide regulations that everything’s, like, totally chill, bro, showed up at yesterday’s Cannabis Alliance meeting with a different message. In a welcome departure from the usual "we got this" shtick, Rick Garza, the agency's director, and six staffers showed up to say, essentially, the system isn't perfect, we admit it isn't perfect, and we’re taking meaningful action to fix it.

Without directly acknowledging "Pestgate," he laid out a series of regulatory fixes designed to strengthen the state’s pesticide rules and restore confidence in its sometimes errant pot testing labs. Some of those are already underway—the WSLCB just implemented two emergency rules, one establishing recall protocols for tainted products and the other giving the agency a bigger stick to wave at labs suspected of fudging their science—but there’s plenty more to be done.

And, instead of saying, vaguely, “we’re working on it,” Garza painted a pretty clear picture of what they’ll do differently. While the WSLCB has always acknowledged that random, unannounced pesticide testing of growers was probably a good idea, they’ve been slow to actually do it. That’s changing.

“We’ll be going out and doing our own testing,” said Garza. “That costs, like, $500,000 to $1 million to do that. We’ll have to look at how we’re going to get the resources, but recognize that we know that we need to do that.”

They’ve also been loath to involve the agency best equipped to help with pesticides—the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA)—in anything more than an advisory role. Again, that’s changing.

“What makes sense when I look at what’s going on in California and Oregon is using the WSDA, which really has the science and expertise,” he said. “I think we need to work more closely with them.”

Under the system Garza described, WSLCB and WSDA inspectors would pop in on growers together, grab samples, and return them to a WSDA facility for testing. The WSLCB guys can do what they do best—enforce traceability, root around in compost bins, and look into complaints of indecent exposure—while the WSDA guys do what they do best (collect good, representative samples).

Cannabis experts in Washington have been saying for awhile that the WSDA needed to be involved, but it’s nice to hear it directly from a state official. As Garza himself acknowledged, it’s long overdue.

“Why is this taking so long?” he asked, rhetorically. Two reasons, he went on to explain. One, they’ve been so buried setting the system up they haven’t had time to deal with all those peripheral issues like making sure your weed doesn’t have harmful pesticides on it.

“Our main focus has been licensing,” confirmed Becky Smith, the agency’s director of licensing.

Reason two was, of course, federal prohibition.

“It has reduced the amount of information available,” said Garza. “The science is not ahead of the policy here.” To be fair, you can’t really blame the WSLCB for stumbling on consumer safety because the federal agencies whose job it would normally be to oversee consumer safety won’t touch pot with a ten foot pole. Want the EPA to help you set action levels for pesticides on pot? Go fish.

On action levels, the WSLCB is, wisely, not holding their breath for federal input. I’m sure many growers, who are not exactly happy with the state’s current zero tolerance model, are relieved to hear it.

Tim Gates, an analyst with the Marijuana Examiner’s Unit, said the WSLCB would likely be adopting Oregon’s action levels—the amounts of pesticide that can be found on cannabis and still be deemed safe for consumption—and adding a .1 ppm limit for all substances not covered by Oregon’s list. The .1 ppm thing is designed to weed out incidental pesticide contact from intentional application, ensuring that those hapless growers who’re next to careless apple orchards don’t fail their pesticide screenings.

Even harmful pesticides, in levels below .1 ppm, are barely a risk, and more than likely don't indicate intentional use. It's still a really tight limit, but it's a good, cautious starting point.

“As the science moves forward," said Gates, "we can have specific action levels based on human health and safety.” He also acknowledged that the current system, which prohibits any amount of disallowed pesticide detected, wasn't feasible.

“Those pesticide levels right now essentially have a tolerance level of zero,” he added. “That’s an impossible threshold to have.” Action levels, Gates said, would normally be based on careful scientific study of the effects of pesticides on human safety, but there are no such studies for pot. Adopting action levels, even inexact ones, is the best way to ensure consumer safety without screwing over the nascent pot industry, and everyone from labs to growers to activists has been pushing for them.

These changes don’t mean everything is peachy keen, but I am officially downgrading my worries about how the state regulates pesticides on weed from “totally fucking fucked” to just “work in progress.” Indeed, pot law in Washington is far from perfect—see the debacle that is the Cannabis Patient Protection Act for proof—but it’s getting better.